TEL AVIV, Israel - Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi were among the officials at Ben Gurion International Airport to welcome home IDF team members from Haiti early Thursday morning.
It was a proud moment when members of Knesset, Israel Defense Forces officers and family members watched soldiers disembark from the El Al airliner.
"Forty-eight hours after [the earthquake hit] on January 15, the [IDF] team was already on its way," the prime minister told the crowd at the aiport. "The plan was to set up the field hospital in 20 hours. It was up in about half that time," he said.
"Whoever has come to know the IDF over the years is certainly not surprised," the prime minister said. "Our greatest test as a people and a military is the ability to make quick rescue operations while making decisions on the move. You have proven these abilities and have done much more - you have raised human spirits and elevated the name of the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces," he said.
"As many plot against us, distort and muddy our names, you have shown the real IDF," Netanyahu said.
"The chief of staff has told me that the other military teams were astonished by how quickly we arrived on the scene and began to work. Those who have seen the IDF over the years, operating under seemingly impossible situations and missions, are not surprised," he said.
"I salute you on behalf of the State of Israel and [on behalf] of all honest, sincere humanity," he said.
The IDF chief of staff told team members their "ability to save lives crossed new boundaries" in the Haiti mission.
"Many have recently tried to tarnish our image," Ashkenazi said. "In your actions, you have proven the opposite is true," he said.
"Facing this massive catastrophe was an exceptional group of people from the Home Front Command and the IDF Medical Corps. This group was a source of pride for every Jew," the chief of staff said.
Ashkenazi said while in Brussels earlier this week to attend the NATO Military Chiefs of Defense conference, many military leaders commended the team's work.
"I was proud to be the man representing them," he said.
Team captain Brig.-Gen. Shalom Ben Aryeh said the staff treated 1,111 patients, performed 317 life-saving operations, and delivered 16 babies.
"Each of them would have died had then not been treated," he said.
A six-year-old Haitian boy who traveled with the team will undergo surgery at Wolfson Hospital for congenital, life-threatening heart defects.
YNet news and The Jerusalem Post contributed to this report.
*Originally published January 29, 2010.